When writing, think about where to put attribution

Suppose we all use proper grammar. If not, how can we make what we write clearer and more engaging?

In a recent New Yorker magazine article on black artist Josephine Baker, who rose to fame in Paris in the 1920s, the writer described Baker’s activity in the French resistance to the Nazis and her response to racism in America. Suddenly, a quote appeared that gave us no idea who was talking:

“Yesterday as today, France cherishes black Americans while subjecting its own nationals to 20 times more police checks when they are perceived as Arabs or blacks,” writes journalist Rokhaya Diallo.

How much more useful for the reader to attribute the quote in this way:

“Yesterday as today”, writes journalist Rokhaya Diallo, “France cherishes black Americans…”

Now we know who is speaking, and we don’t experience that moment of wonder that interrupts the flow of the narrative.

Choosing to identify Diallo within the sentence also creates a rhythmic flow. The technique is called “internal attribution” and it can serve both writers and readers well.

Of course, the writer could introduce Diallo at the beginning of the sentence. But that would mean sacrificing the ability to make language feel like music.

You can label this sort of thing as subtlety – not in the sense of something nice, but in the sense of a delicate precision that makes the meaning clearer. A subtlety takes the form of a deft touch that goes beyond proper grammar and leaves the reader wanting more.

Another useful technique: the colon, as it appears in this very sentence. A colon creates an expectation, in this case the name of a technique. A colon also works well to introduce a list of items. Or to introduce a quote — a way to save money by avoiding such a trivial form as “The mayor said…”

Feedback Department: A reader of my last column, about the weakness of verbs based on the form “to be”, addressed this lament to me: “It is what it is.

Twin Cities writing coach Gary Gilson, who teaches journalism at Colorado College, can be reached through writebetterwithgary.com.

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